Earlier this year, an amazing, inspiring group of women created a new student group on campus: the Michigan Women of Color Collective. This collective has united women of color from every corner of the University and seeks to provide a safe space for us to discuss the issues we face — from overt racism to the microaggressions we face daily that often are neglected, delegitimized and trivialized.
After attending the first few meetings, I felt a concoction of emotions. I related to many of the women in the room, and their stories and testimonies caused me to reflect on my own experiences in an attempt to identify instances of racism, bigotry and sexism that I hadn’t previously considered. These women made me realize that, as an Arab American Muslim woman, I had often been tokenized both in and out of the classroom at a young age and forced to speak on behalf of an entire racial, ethnic and religious community.
I learned that it wasn’t my duty to educate, and the anxiety I felt having to be the spokesperson for Arabs and Muslims in all sorts of spaces was warranted and legitimate. How would I possibly be able to provide enough context and nuance when describing a religion practiced by billions, or an identity that hundreds of millions across the world shared? It simply didn’t make sense, and this space provided me with a sense of relief that this overwhelming feeling of stress and confusion wasn’t exclusive to me.
However, I also felt a certain level of discomfort in the space and at first couldn’t understand why. This resulted in my reluctance to share as much and a greater interest in hearing the experiences of the other women in the room. I came to realize that there were oppressions and barriers I would never have to face because of my privileges (having fairer skin and being a part of the upper-middle class). I also realized that my privileges often came at the expense of other brown and Black bodies.
I grew up in the bubble that is Bloomfield Hills. Bloomfield Hills is not only one of the wealthiest cities in the state of Michigan, but in the entire nation. While I did face racism growing up, I belonged to a sizable Arab and Muslim community, not to mention that my socioeconomic privilege, coupled with my skin color (which falls in some awkward place between light and medium when picking out makeup), gave me the opportunity to forego many of the oppressions that poorer and darker Arabs and Muslims face, both nationally and beyond.
I come from an Iraqi family; when I meet people, they are often surprised when I reveal my nationality in conversation. I’ve been told multiple times that I am “too pretty” or “too light” to be Iraqi. This always confused me because the Iraqis who I interact with, the ones in my family, look like me. I realized soon enough that the same people who were making these harsh, racist generalizations were typically interacting with the poor, darker-skinned refugee population of Iraqis both in the United States and in countries I visited abroad, such as Jordan and Lebanon.
My mother’s skin is even lighter than mine. Combine her fair skin with her green eyes and light brown, almost dirty blonde hair. When meeting some of her relatives for the first time this past summer, her cousin immediately asked me why I wasn’t pretty like my mother, why I didn’t inherit the green eyes or the fair skin that my mother claimed. I hadn’t experienced anything like it before; the man looked at me disgustedly, as if I was subhuman simply because I had dark, thick hair, dark eyes and a slightly darker complexion than my mother. I was somehow a lesser version of her because of my color and my darker features.
This was when I began to understand that while I am a person of color, there are many privileges I enjoy based on my color and my class. This is when I began to understand colorism on a deeper level, that I would be judged relative to the other people of color around me. This is when I began to understand that racism is an issue of black and white; the whiter you are, even as a person of color, the less oppression you face and the easier it is for you to assimilate into the ideals of whiteness.
I struggle reconciling these intersecting identities and privileges, and also struggle at times identifying as a person of color because of how different my experiences have been based on my lighter skin, as well as my privileges as an upper-middle-class, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied person. While there are certain settings where I feel comfortable claiming the “person of color” label to build political solidarity across non-white communities, there are probably more instances when the label can be deceitful in its implication of a monolithic experience and narrative of what is actually an overwhelmingly nuanced, diverse group of people. This is particularly misleading when the label “people of color” includes non-Black POCs like myself, who indirectly reap the benefits of white supremacy and are complicit in a system that promotes anti-Black culture.
Being aware of the privileges I hold and the role that I play as a non-Black woman of color has helped me become cognizant of the space I take up in settings with other women of color, namely Black women who are oftentimes the direct targets of any form of racism — even racism that is directed at me, and especially racism initiated or perpetuated by my community and other non-Black communities of color.
So as a “person of color,” I reflect on the ways I benefit from and am complacent in these systems of oppression. Because the term “person of color” isn’t enough for me and it certainly isn’t enough for those under the label whose oppression I am too privileged to know or ever claim as my own.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail email@example.com.